Bill to strengthen equal-pay protections goes to Gov. Christie

Hugh R. Morley, The Record

The New Jersey legislature has given final approval to a bill that would strengthen measures that prevent employers from discriminating against female workers by awarding pay and benefit packages that are less than their male counterparts.

The bill, which amends the state's existing Law Against Discrimination, prohibits employers from discriminating between employees on the basis of sex by offering differing pay rates and benefit packages "for substantially similar work."

The bill also prohibits an employer from "taking reprisals" against an employee who discloses information about job titles, rates of compensation and other details that would enable an employee to determine whether or not they are being discriminated against.

While the state's existing law prohibits discrimination at work, the proposed amendment, which passed the Assembly 54-14 on Monday following 28-4 Senate approval Feb. 11, is more specific about what employers cannot do, said Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, D-Jersey City, a sponsor. 

He cited a study that showed women earn 79 cents for each dollar earned by a man.

"There has been some progress," he said. "But not nearly as much as is necessary to close the gap."

Governor Christie's office declined to comment on whether he will sign the bill.

"Every little step we can take to chip away at the gap makes a difference," said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Englewood, a bill sponsor. "The gender pay gap holds women back in so many ways. For example, it takes many women much longer to pay off their student loan debt than men."

However, Melanie Willoughby, a lobbyist for the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, a Trenton-based trade group, said the organization opposed the amendment because it extends the time period in which a worker can claim discrimination. 

She said existing New Jersey and federal law allows a claim for alleged discrimination to be brought only on incidents that occur in the previous two years. But the proposed amendment would put no limit on the past time period for which a worker can claim a discrimination incident occurred.

That could mean employers wouild have to fight legal claims, and try to assemble documentation, about incidents that occurred decades before, Willoughby said.

"Where this is a problem is how do you come up with the material you need to make a case?" she said. "That's where we feel it is difficult for an employer, and an employee, to be able to have the records to do that."